Economic storm clouds darken outlook for public finances

A slightly higher fiscal deficit for May and rising interest rates provide no comfort for the Chancellor as he considers how to respond to public sector wage demands.

The monthly public sector finances released on Thursday 23 June 2022 reported a provisional deficit for the month of May 2022 of £14.0bn, an improvement from this time last year, but still £8.5bn higher than May 2019, the year before the pandemic.

Public sector net debt increased by £21bn from £2,342bn at the end of March 2022 to £2,363bn or 95.8% of GDP at the end of May. This is £570bn higher than 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed over the course of the pandemic.

The deficit reported for the two months to May 2022 of £35.9bn was an improvement of £6.4bn from the deficit of £42.3bn reported for the months of April and May 2021, and £64.2bn better than the £100.1bn reported for April and May 2020. However, it was £19.8bn worse than the pre-pandemic deficit of £16.1bn for the two months to May 2019.

Tax and other receipts in the two months amounted to £147.5bn, £12.4bn or 9% higher than a year previously. This included higher income tax receipts from wage increases and bonuses as well as the new higher rate of national insurance, as well as higher VAT receipts driven by higher retail prices.

Expenditure excluding interest and investment for the year to date of £158.5bn was unchanged from the same period last year, as reduced spending on the pandemic including furlough programmes was offset by planned increases in spending announced in last year’s Spending Review and by additional support to households to help with their energy bills.

Interest amounted to £15.7bn in April and May, £6.1bn or 64% higher than the £9.6bn in the two months ended 31 May 2021, reflecting how higher interest rates and higher inflation are increasing the government’s cost of borrowing.

Net public sector investment in April and May 2022 was reported to be £9.2bn, which is £0.1bn lower than a year previously. This is slightly surprising given planned increases in capital expenditure as well as the subsidies given in the past two months to Bulb Energy, a failed energy supplier taken over by the government.

The increase in net debt of £21.2bn since the start of the financial year comprises the deficit for the month of £35.9bn less £14.7bn in net borrowing repayments. This reflects the recovery of loans to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme and of loans to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), offset by funding for student loans and other government cash requirements.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “A slightly higher deficit than expected in this month’s numbers and a rising interest bill will not provide any comfort for the Chancellor as he considers how to respond to public sector wage demands at the same time as attempting to build capacity for pre-election tax cuts next year.

The economic storm clouds hovering over the fiscal outlook, as living standards go into reverse and inflation erodes the extent of planned investment in local communities, are likely to make the government’s ambition to level up the country even more difficult to achieve.”

Table showing cumulative numbers for April and May 2022 and variances against the same period a year ago:

Receipts £147.5bn: £12.4bn or +8%
Expenditure (£158.5bn): £0.0bn
Interest (£15.7bn): (£6.1bn) or +39%
Net investment: (£9.2bn): £0.1bn or -1%
Deficit (£35.9bn): £6.4bn or -18%
Other borrowing: £14.7bn: £31.1bn or -212%
(Increase) in net debt: (£21.2bn): £37.5bn or -177%

Public sector net debt: £2,363.2bn: £170.1bn or +8%
Public sector net debt / GDP 95.8%: 0.5% or +0.5%

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made several revisions to the prior period fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of increasing the reported fiscal deficit for the month of April 2022 by £3.3bn from £18.6bn to £21.9bn and decreasing the reported fiscal deficits for the 12 months to March 2022 by £0.9bn from £144.6bn to £143.7bn and for the year ended 31 March 2021 by £7.7bn from £317.3bn to £309.6bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit and net debt for April and May combined in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively.

For details, click on the link to the original article on the ICAEW website.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Whole of Government Accounts 2019/20

We take a look at the government balance sheet at 31 March 2020 this week, following publication by HM Treasury of the long-delayed 2019/20 audited financial statements for the UK public sector.

Step chart showing public assets £2,129bn, liabilities of (£4,973bn) and net liabilities of (£2,834bn).

Fixed assets £1,353bn, receivables & other £195bn, investments £323bn, financial assets £268bn.

Financial liabilities (£2,207bn), payables (£201bn), pensions (£2,190bn).

Taxpayer equity (£2,834bn).

HM Treasury was up in front of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this week to be grilled on the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) for the year ended 31 March 2020. The first question posed by MPs was why it had taken more than 26 months to publish the audited financial statements for the UK public sector, unlocking a tale of woe regarding the pandemic, delays in central government reporting, even greater delays in local government, and problems in implementing a new consolidation system. 

For all that, the PAC expressed their appreciation for the contents of the WGA, which comprises a performance report, governance statements, financial statements prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards, an audit report and a reconciliation to the fiscal numbers reported by the Office for National Statistics. The UK is one of the leading governments around the world in preparing comprehensive financial reports similar to those seen in the private sector, and is the only one to attempt to incorporate local government as well as central government and public corporations.

Our chart summarises the balance sheet reported in the consolidated financial statements at 31 March 2020, when there were total assets of £2,139bn, total liabilities of £4.973bn and negative taxpayer equity of £2,834bn. These numbers do not reflect the more than half a trillion pounds borrowed since then which are likely to see the 2020/21 and 2021/22 WGA move even further into negative territory. 

On the positive side of the balance sheet were:

  • £195bn of receivable and other assets, comprising £160bn of trade and other receivables due within one year, £22bn of receivables due in more than year, £11bn of inventories and £2bn of assets held for sale;
  • £1,353bn of fixed assets, consisting of £676bn for infrastructure, £459bn of land and buildings, £77bn of assets under construction, £41bn of military equipment, £60bn of other tangible fixed assets, and £40bn of intangibles;
  • £323bn of investments, including £126bn of non-current loans and deposits, £77bn in student loans, £36bn in equity investments, £22bn invested in the IMF, £38bn in derivatives and other, and £24bn in investment property; and 
  • £268bn of current financial assets, of which £118bn were in debt securities, £74bn in loan balances due within one year, £38bn in cash and cash equivalents, £13bn in gold holdings, £13bn in IMF special drawing rights and £12bn in derivatives and other.

On the negative side, there were:

  • £2,207bn in financial liabilities, comprising £1,266bn in government securities (gilts and Treasury bills), £560bn of deposits owed to banks, £179bn owed to investors in National Savings & Investments, £78bn in bank and other borrowings, £74bn in banknotes and £50bn in derivatives and other financial liabilities;
  • £201bn of payables, including £66bn of accruals and deferred income, £55bn of trade and other payables, £42bn in lease obligations, £34bn in tax and duty refunds payable and £4bn in contract liabilities;
  • £2,190bn in net pension obligations, of which £2,062bn were for unfunded pension schemes (NHS £760bn, teachers £490bn, civil service £309bn, armed forces £233bn, police & fire £197bn, other £73bn) and £128bn for funded schemes (local government £359bn less £253bn = £106bn, and other funded schemes £106bn less £84bn = £22bn). This balance does not include the state pension, which is treated as a welfare benefit and not a liability for accounting purposes; and
  • £375bn in provisions for liabilities and charges, including £157bn for nuclear decommissioning, £86bn for clinical negligence, £39bn for EU liabilities, £31bn for the pension protection fund and £62bn in other provisions.

Net liabilities therefore amounted to £2,834bn, reflecting the general policy decision taken by successive governments not to fund liabilities in advance, but instead to rely on future tax revenues and borrowing to provide cash as needed to settle liabilities and other financial obligations and commitments. As Sir Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, informed the PAC, this minimises the investment risks the government might otherwise be exposed to if it were to invest in (say) the stock market.

Cat Little, Head of the Government Finance Function, set out plans to bring down the time to prepare the WGA, to within 24 months for the 2020/21 WGA and to within 20 months for the 2021/22 WGA. This remains a long way off the long-term objective of producing the WGA within nine months of the balance sheet date.

While the numbers in these financial statements are now more than two years old, they are still extremely valuable in providing a baseline for the financial position of the UK public sector as the country headed into the pandemic. It is well worth a read if you have the time.

The Whole of Government Accounts 2019/20 is available online.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Real interest rates

The ICAEW chart of the week looks at how real interest rates – net of inflation – remain stubbornly negative despite recent increases in the Bank of England base rate.

Chart with three lines - nominal yields on government debt, the Bank of England base rate and real yields on government debt. See text for details.

A feature of the economy since the financial crisis has been negative real interest rates, with the Bank of England reporting a -2.33% implied spot yield on 10-year government gilts as of 30 April 2022. This compares with a base rate of 0.75% on that day (since raised to 1%) and a nominal yield of +1.9%. With further increases in interest rates likely as the Bank of England seeks to bring inflation under control it is possible that real interest rates will become less negative over the next few months, at least assuming inflation peaks and doesn’t accelerate out of control.

Negative real interest rates are generally considered to be stimulative to the economy, reflecting the monetary policy support that the Bank of England has been providing since the financial crisis almost a decade and a half ago. Economic theory suggests that this should encourage spending and investment, as the nominal interest earned on savings will not be sufficient to offset the erosion in the value of money as prices rise over time.

The chart highlights how real interest rates were -2.59% in January 2020, before falling to almost -3.08% in June 2020 and bouncing around between -2.50% and -3.00% until November 2021 when they fell to -3.33%. They have since increased to -2.33% in April and to -2.20% as of 10 May 2022. Over that same period, nominal interest rates similarly based on government bond yields have fallen from 0.53% in January 2020 to 0.13% in July 2020 before increasing to between 0.3% and 0.4% until January 2021 after which they bounced between 0.8% and 1.0% until December 2021 since when rates have gradually increased to 1.92% on 30 April 2022, falling slightly to 1.86% on 10 May 2022. During this time, the Bank of England base rate was reduced from 0.75% in January 2020, to 0.25% and then 0.10% in March 2020 where it stayed until increasing to 0.25% in December 2021, to 0.50% in February 2022 to 0.75% in March 2022 and to 1.00% in May 2022.

The yields used in the chart are only one way of measuring real and nominal interest rates, and it is important to note that the former depend on the inflation expectations of market participants at particular points in time, which are not the same as the actual rates of inflation that are or will be experienced.

The challenge for the Bank of England over the next few months in tackling the current surge in inflation is how to take away the economic stimulus theoretically provided by negative real interest rates without causing a collapse in asset prices and a potential recession. A series of tough calls for even the most hardened policy makers.

ICAEW chart of the week: Spring Statement 2022

This week we look at the Spring Statement, where the story is all about inflation as the Chancellor responded to the pressures that have contributed to the cost of living crisis.

Step chart showing changes from the October forecast for the deficit in 2022/23 and the revised Spring Statement forecast for the same period.

October forecast £83bn - higher receipts £30bn - lower unemployment £3bn + debt interest +£41bn + other revisions £2bn = updated forecast of £93bn.

The - student loans £11bn + energy support £12bn + tax cuts £6bn - other changes £1bn = Spring Statement forecast of £99bn.

What Chancellor Rishi Sunak had originally hoped would be a short report to Parliament on the latest economic and fiscal forecasts turned into a fully-fledged fiscal event as he responded to a ‘cost of living’ crisis that is expected to put severe pressure on household budgets and is risking the viability of many businesses. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that the Chancellor’s energy support package and tax cuts will cover around a third of the decline in living standards expected in the coming financial year.

Inflation is now centre stage in a way that it hasn’t been since the 1970s.

Our chart summarises the changes in the forecast for fiscal deficit the coming financial year commencing on 1 April 2022, showing how last October’s forecast of a £83bn shortfall between receipts and expenditure has increased to a £99bn shortfall in the latest forecasts by the OBR.

The good news is that the economic recovery from the pandemic has been stronger than previously thought, with the pandemic support measures such as the furlough scheme being rewarded with stronger tax receipts coming through into the forecasts. An extra £30bn is expected in 2022/23, complemented by lower unemployment than expected, which also reduces the forecast for welfare spending by an estimated £3bn.

Offsetting that is a huge rise in interest costs. This is driven by a sharp rise in the retail prices index (RPI), to which a substantial proportion of the government’s debt is linked, combined with higher interest rates as the Bank of England attempts to prevent inflation rising even further. These factors add an extra £41bn to the forecast interest bill for next year, bringing it up to £83bn, three and a half times the £24bn in 2020/21 and more than 50% higher than the £54bn now expected for the current financial year. Interest in subsequential financial years has been revised up by around £9bn a year on the basis (the forecasters hope) that inflation is brought back under control in 2023/24.

Other changes to the fiscal forecast add £2bn to the deficit forecast, bringing it up to £93bn before taking account of policy decisions announced since last October. The first, which for some reason was not highlighted by the Chancellor in his speech, was the impact of increasing the amounts that graduates will have to repay on their student loans, reducing the anticipated bad debt write-off in 2022/23 by £11bn from the estimate made last October.

The Chancellor did talk about the energy support package that he announced last month as the energy prices rises coming in April were announced. However, he did not add to that package directly – instead choosing to announce tax cuts of about £6bn in 2022/23. The main element is an increase from July of around £3,000 in the threshold at which National Insurance is payable by employees, which will benefit many low to middle income families, but not (as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and others have pointed out) the very poorest that will be hit hardest by price rises. More than two thirds of the benefit will go to higher income households.

Overall, the OBR says the energy support package and tax cuts together will offset around a third of the fall in living standards that is expected in the coming year.

Other policy changes amounting to around £1bn were offset by indirect effects of £2bn, resulting in a net £1bn benefit to bring the forecast deficit to £99bn, some £16bn higher in total than that predicted in October.

These numbers don’t include the 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax from 6 April 2024 that was also announced by the Chancellor. This is expected to cost around £6bn a year in lower tax receipts, but is expected to be more than offset by the effect of freezing both income tax and national insurance thresholds (expected to bring in somewhere in the region of £18bn extra a year). In effect, the Chancellor has chosen to bank the ‘benefit’ of higher inflation on his decision to freeze thresholds.

The big question is whether the Chancellor will be able to hold off from providing further support to households and businesses for the rest of the financial year. Most commentators appear to suggest that it is likely that he will return to the despatch box in the House of Commons before the next round of energy prices rises in October in order to make further announcements.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Spring Statement: what the new measures will mean

ICAEW Insights quotes me in an article on the Spring Statement 2022:

“Despite its impact on the government’s interest bill, there is a major benefit to inflation in that it helps bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio more quickly, providing the Chancellor more space to intervene to help with the cost of living,” Martin Wheatcroft, public finance adviser to ICAEW, explains.

According to the OBR, the new measures announced in the Spring Statement, along with the existing package announced previously, should offset around a third of the increase in costs that households are facing, leaving them with the burden of the other two-thirds, Wheatcroft says. “I think we should expect further measures from the Chancellor in the summer or autumn as the impacts on households become more apparent.”

Wheatcroft adds that it is likely that some of the announcements included in the Spring Statement were brought forward to ease tensions with backbenchers. “With members of his own party pressing for a delay in the NIC increase, I suspect the Chancellor felt pressure to bring forward measures that he may have been saving for later in the year, in particular his planned cut to income tax in 2024 and a tax plan that was likely set for a summer release ahead of the Autumn Budget.”

To read the full article, click here.

Public finances raise hopes for Spring Statement giveaway

February’s £13.1bn deficit was offset by revisions to prior month estimates, boosting public finances and putting further pressure on the Chancellor to provide more help to households and businesses facing rapidly rising prices.

The public sector finances for February 2022, released on Tuesday 22 March 2022, reported a deficit for the month of £13.1bn. This was an improvement of £2.4bn from the deficit of £15.4bn reported for February 2021, but £12.8bn worse than the £0.4bn deficit reported for February 2020.

The cumulative deficit of £138.4bn for the first 11 months of the 2021/22 financial year was £0.1bn less than that reported last month, as the £13.1bn deficit for February was offset by £13.2bn in revisions to prior month estimates.

Public sector net debt increased by £6.6bn from £2,320.2bn at the end of January to £2,326.8bn or 94.7% of GDP at the end of February, with tax and loan recoveries partly offsetting the deficit for the month. Despite that, debt is £192.4bn higher than at the start of the financial year and £533.7bn higher than March 2020.

The year-to-date deficit of £138.4bn compares with a cumulative deficit for the first 11 months of the financial year of £290.9bn in 2020/21 and £48.7bn in 2019/20. This was £25.9bn below the forecast published by the Office for Budget Responsibility alongside last October’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, with higher-than-forecast tax receipts being partially offset by higher-than-forecast interest charges on index-linked debt. Both are driven by higher rates of inflation, which takes more time to feed through to non-interest expenditure. This suggests that the deficit for the full year could end up somewhere in the region of £30bn below the official forecast of £183bn.

Cumulative receipts in the first 11 months of the 2021/22 financial year amounted to £826.0bn – £104.7bn or 15% higher than a year previously but £69.3bn or 9% above the level seen in the first 11 months of 2019/20. At the same time, cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £846.2bn was £65.1bn or 7% lower than the same period last year, but £127.4bn or 18% higher than two years ago.

Interest amounted to £69.2bn in the eleven months to 28 February 2022, which was £29.4bn or 74% higher than the same period in 2020/21, principally because of the effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts. Interest costs were £17.8bn or 35% more than in the equivalent 11-month period ended 29 February 2020.

Cumulative net public sector investment up to February 2022 was £49.0bn. This was £12.1bn or 20% below the £29.7bn reported for the first 11 months of last year, which included around £17bn of COVID-19 related lending that the government does not expect to recover. Investment was £13.8bn or 39% more than two years ago, principally reflecting greater capital expenditures, including on HS2.

The increase in debt of £192.4bn since the start of the financial year comprises the cumulative deficit of £138.4bn and £54.0bn in other borrowing. The latter has been used to fund lending to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), student loans and other cash requirements, net of the recovery of taxes deferred last year and loan repayments.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, says: “Today’s numbers show the impact inflation is having on the public finances as it continues to drive both tax receipts and interest costs higher. The deficit for the financial year is expected to be around £30bn lower than October’s official forecast of £183bn, while tomorrow’s Spring Statement forecasts could see a smaller deficit next year than the £62bn expected before the pandemic.

“Uncertainty about the impact of the war in Ukraine on the UK means it will be extremely difficult for the Chancellor to gauge the level of intervention needed to support households and businesses facing rocketing energy prices if he’s to avoid a recession that could permanently damage the economy and the public finances, and still leave room for tax cuts in the Autumn Budget.”

Table showing cumulative 11 month numbers and variances against prior year and two years ago. All amounts in £bn, with negative numbers in brackets (costs / negative variances).

Receipts 826.0: 104.7 +15% better than prior year; 69.3 +9% versus two years ago

Expenditure (846.2): 65.1 -7%; (127.4) +18%

Interest (69.2): (29.4) +74%; (17.8) +35%

Net investment (49.0): 12.1 -20%; (13.8) +39%

Subtotal Deficit (138.4): 152.5 or -52% lower than the prior year; (89.7) +184% higher than two years ago

Other borrowing (54.0): (8.5) +19%; (73.3) -380%

Total (Increase) in net debt (192.4): 144 -43%; (163.0) +554%

Also:

Public sector net debt 2,326.8: 197.3 or +9% higher than prior year and 542.8 +30% higher than two years ago

Public sector net debt / GDP 94.7%: 0.3% or 0% higher than prior year; 12.7% or +15% higher than two years ago.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the 10 months to January 2022 by £13.2bn from £138.5bn to £125.3bn and reducing the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 by £4.1bn from £321.9bn to £317.8bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit by month from Apr 2021 to Feb 2022.

Click on link below to the article on the ICAEW website for a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: pre-Spring Statement debt forecast

This week’s chart reviews the sharp increase in the national debt to GDP ratio as we reflect on the challenges facing Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Step chart showing changes in the debt to GDP ratio.

March 2015: 79.8% +12.6% borrowing -9.7% economic growth and inflation = 82.7% in March 2020.

82.7% + 26.1% - 10.6% = 98.2% in March 2022

98.2% + 7.8% - 18.0% = 88.0% forecast for March 2027.

Better tax receipts and higher inflation are expected to contribute to an improvement in the fiscal forecasts that will accompany the Spring Statement on 23 March 2022, further increasing the pressure on the Chancellor to do more to support households and businesses facing spiralling energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis.

Our chart this week is based on the latest official forecast for public sector net debt prior to its update on 23 March 2022 at the Spring Statement. The chart highlights how it took five years for debt to increase from 79.8% to 82.7% as a share of GDP before leaping to a projected 98.2% over the two years to 31 March 2022 and then falling to a projected 88.0% at 31 March 2027.

The debt to GDP ratio is probably the most important key performance indicator used by most governments to assess their public finances, so much so that when ministers talk about reducing debt, they do not mean paying back the amounts owed to debt investors (unless they are in the German government). Instead, governments in most developed countries aim to borrow at a slower rate than the increase in the size of the economy, allowing the combination of economic growth and inflation to offset the often-significant sums of cash required to finance the shortfall between tax receipts and public spending.

This objective has been difficult to achieve over the past decade of low economic growth and low inflation, as illustrated by the increase in the UK’s debt to GDP ratio from 79.8% to 82.7% between 31 March 2015 and 2020. In cash terms, public sector net debt increased by £261bn from £1,532bn to £1,793bn over that five-year period, equivalent to 12.6% of a year’s GDP. The debt to GDP ratio only went up by 2.9 percentage points, with economic growth and inflation offsetting the increase in the amounts owed by the equivalent of 9.7% of GDP. (The objective would have been achieved but for a quirk in the choice of GDP measure used for this calculation by the Office for National Statistics in the UK, which is ‘mid-year GDP’; at 31 March 2020 this encompassed both the last six months of 2019/20 before the pandemic but also the first six months of 2020/21 and the lockdowns that occurred during that time, reversing some of the economic growth experienced in the preceding five years.)

The chart goes onto illustrate how the more than half a trillion pounds (£576bn or 26.1% of GDP) borrowed by the government in just two years over the course of the pandemic is partially offset by the economic recovery and a great deal more inflation, reducing the impact on the debt to GDP ratio by the equivalent of 10.6%.

Debt as a share of GDP over the next five years is then expected to decline, with a projected net addition of £198bn (7.8% of GDP) expected to be added to debt according to last October’s forecast. Projected public sector net debt of £2,567bn at 31 March 2027 is currently expected to be lower in proportion to the size of the economy at 88.0% of GDP, as the post-pandemic recovery and already forecast higher rates of inflation cause GDP to rise at a faster rate than the government can borrow, resulting in a reduction equivalent to 18.0% of GDP.

The official projections for the current financial year, prepared last October by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), are expected to be revised upwards to incorporate the stronger tax receipts reported in recent monthly public sector finance reports and higher levels of GDP from even higher rates of inflation than previously expected. These effects are likely to combine to reduce the 98.2% of GDP forecast for debt for the end of March 2022 by several percentage points.

There is a much greater deal of uncertainty about how the OBR’s medium-term projections will deal with the potential future path of the pandemic, the cost-of-living squeeze on household incomes, and the effect of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia on UK businesses. This is in addition to its normal difficulty in both measuring and forecasting the trillions of financial transactions that are undertaken every year in an economy of more than 67m people.

Many economic commentators expect stronger tax receipts and higher inflation to flow through to the projections for the next five years, even after taking account of the increased interest costs that come from higher rates of inflation and higher interest rates and the already announced package of support measures for households struggling with energy price rises. This should in theory result in a substantial improvement in the projected debt to GDP ratio in March 2027 from the 88.0% previously forecast, but what we won’t know until the Spring Statement is to what extent Chancellor Rishi Sunak intends to spend some of that improvement.

Mixed signals mean that it is difficult to tell to whether there will be an improvement to the support package to households facing large rises in their energy costs and the prices they pay for food and other essentials, whether the Chancellor will also choose to reduce fuel duties to help motorists, and how far he will opt to support businesses affected by substantially higher input costs in addition to the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. Not to mention the political pressure on the Chancellor to announce increases in the defence budget now rather than waiting for the Autumn Budget.

For what was envisioned as a quiet fiscal occasion dealing with routine revisions to the fiscal forecasts, the Spring Statement has turned into a significant fiscal event. After all, even if the Chancellor decides to do nothing, that will still be a choice, with major implications for the public finances and the UK economy.

As the sage once said (or possibly didn’t), we live in fiscally interesting times.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: NZ government balance sheet

Our chart this week delves into New Zealand’s public finances, one of the very few developed countries to have a government balance sheet with positive net assets.

Step chart illustrating New Zealand government balance sheet.

Assets NZ$438bn = PP&E NZ$ 213bn + Other assets NZ$ 24bn + Financial assets NZ$ 201bn.

Liabilities NZ$ 281bn = Borrowings NZ$ 163bn + Insurance liabilities NZ$ 60bn + Other liabilities NZ$ 58bn.

Net worth NZ$ 157bn = Taxpayer funds NZ$ 20bn + Revaluation and other reserves NZ$ 137bn.

The signing of the UK-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement on 28 February 2022 prompted us to take a look at New Zealand’s public finances, one of the few developed countries with public assets in excess of public liabilities, and a pioneer of accruals accounting in government.

Our chart this week summarises the total crown balance sheet reported in the Financial Statements of the Government of New Zealand for the year ended 30 June 2021, comprising assets of NZ$438bn (£223bn) less liabilities of NZ$281bn (£143bn) to give net worth of NZ$157bn (£80bn).

New Zealand is a leading country in adopting accruals accounting for use in government, with the financial statements prepared in accordance with New Zealand-adopted accruals-based International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS), which are aligned with IFRS with some adaptation for the public sector. The New Zealand government not only uses IPSAS for financial accounting and reporting, similar to how the UK’s Whole of Government Accounts is based on IFRS, but they also use these standards for budgeting, management accounting and fiscal target setting. This contrasts with the UK, which uses a distinct UK-specific ‘resource’ accounting framework for budgeting and management accounting, and the statistics-based National Accounts system for fiscal target setting.

The asset side of the balance sheet includes NZ$213bn (£109bn) of property, plant and equipment, other non-financial assets of NZ$24bn (£12bn) and financial assets of NZ$201bn (£102bn). The latter includes marketable securities, student loans, residential loans and other financial investments in addition to receivables and cash.

Liabilities include NZ$163bn (£82bn) of borrowings, insurance liabilities of NZ$ 60bn (£31bn) and other liabilities of NZ$58bn (£30bn). Insurance liabilities are relatively high compared with many other countries as a consequence of New Zealand’s unique national no-fault accident compensation scheme that covers everyone in the country, including visitors.

Net worth is made up of taxpayer funds of NZ$20bn (£10bn) and reserves of NZ$137bn (£70bn), with the latter comprising a property revaluation reserve of NZ$134bn (£68bn) and minority interests of NZ$6bn (£3bn) less negative reserves of NZ$3bn (£1bn) principally relating to defined benefit retirement plans and veterans disability entitlements.

With a population of 5.1m, net worth on a per capita basis at 30 June 2021 is equivalent to approximately NZ$31,000 (£16,000) per person, comprising NZ$86,000 (£44,000) in assets per person less NZ$55,000 (£28,000) in liabilities per person. This compares with the approximate negative net worth of £37,000 per person based on the UK Whole of Government Accounts at 31 March 2019, comprising £31,000 in assets per person less £68,000 in liabilities per person.

While some caution needs to be taken in comparing these amounts given differences in accounting policies and the exclusion of local government from the New Zealand numbers, they do provide an insight into how on a proportional basis the New Zealand public sector is much better capitalised than the UK public sector.

While there are significant differences between the economies of New Zealand and the UK that no doubt explain the respective strengths and weaknesses of their public balance sheets, the presence of accountants in New Zealand’s highest office, most recently Sir John Key (prime minister 2008-2016), may also have something to do with it.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Boost to tax revenues is a dilemma for the Chancellor

January’s public sector finance surplus of £2.9bn was driven by a boost to tax revenues as inflation drove up VAT receipts and self assessment income grew, putting further pressure on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to increase support to households facing huge rises in energy prices.

The public sector finances for January, released on 22 February, reported a surplus for the month of £2.9bn. This was an improvement of £5.4bn from the deficit of £2.5bn reported for January 2021, but £7bn smaller than the £9.9bn surplus reported for January 2020.

Total receipts were £97.9bn in January, up from £76.0bn in the previous month.

Public sector net debt fell from £2,339.7bn at the end of December to £2,317.6bn or 95% of GDP at the end of January, with tax and loan recoveries supplementing the surplus for the month. Despite that, debt is £210.7bn higher than at the start of the financial year and £524.5bn higher than in March 2020.

The cumulative deficit for the first 10 months of the financial year was £138.5bn, compared with £278.7bn and £48.4bn for the same period last year and the year before that respectively.

This was £17.7bn below the forecast published by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) alongside last October’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, although higher than forecast tax receipts were partially offset by higher than forecast interest charges on index-linked debt. Both are driven by higher rates of inflation, which takes more time to feed through to non-interest expenditure.

Cumulative receipts in the first 10 months of the 2021/22 financial year amounted to £741bn, £93.3bn or 14% higher than a year previously, but only £56.1bn or 8% above the level seen in the first 10 months of 2019/20. At the same time, cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £776.7bn was £58.8bn or 7% lower than the same period last year, but £122.2bn or 19% higher than two years ago.

Interest amounted to £59.6bn in the 10 months to January 2022, £25.4bn or 74% higher than the same period in 2020/21, principally because of the effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts. Interest costs were £12.8bn or 27% more than in the equivalent 10-month period ended 31 January 2020.

Cumulative net public sector investment up to January 2022 was £43.2bn. This was £13.5bn or 24% below the £56.7bn reported for the first 10 months of last year, which included around £17bn of COVID-19-related lending that the government does not expect to recover. Investment was £11.3bn or 35% more than two years ago, principally reflecting greater capital expenditures, including on HS2.

The increase in debt of £183.2bn since the start of the financial year comprises the cumulative deficit of £138.5bn and £44.7bn in other borrowing. The latter has been used to fund lending to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), student loans, and other cash requirements, net of the recovery of taxes deferred last year and loan repayments.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “The strong tax receipts reported today will provide a welcome respite for the public finances, reducing the shortfall in the government’s income compared with its expenditure from previous forecasts. However, the deficit is still on track to be the third highest ever recorded in peacetime, while public debt is more than half a trillion pounds higher than it was at the start of the pandemic.

“The challenge for Sunak will be balancing the strong pressures on him to increase the support package for households facing rapidly rising energy costs and retail prices, with the need to strengthen the resilience of the public finances in the face of a great deal of economic uncertainty and increasing global security concerns. The Chancellor will be acutely aware that while inflation is adding to tax revenues today it will go on to add to public spending tomorrow”.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing the increase in net debt for the 10 months to Jan 2021 and public sector net debt and public sector net debt / GDP at 31 Jan 2021 together with variances versus prior year and two years ago.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the nine months to December 2021 from £146.8bn to £141.4bn and increasing the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £321.8bn to £321.9bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit for each of the 10 months to Jan 2021.

Click on link below to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

December public finances: rising debt interest costs offset higher tax revenues

December’s deficit of £16.8bn saw both a rise in tax revenues and in interest on inflation-linked debt as pressure grows on the Chancellor to address energy price hikes and rising prices in the shops.
The public sector finances for December 2021 released on Tuesday 25 January 2022 reported a monthly deficit of £16.8bn. This was £7.6bn lower than the £24.4bn reported for December 2020 but £11bn higher than the £5.8bn deficit reported for December 2019.

This brings the cumulative deficit for the first nine months of the financial year to £146.8bn compared with £276.1bn and £58.4bn for the same period last year and the year before that respectively.

Public sector net debt increased from £2,321.8bn at the end of November to £2,339.9bn or 96% of GDP at the end of December. This is £205.5bn higher than at the start of the financial year and an increase of £546.8bn from March 2020. As a proportion of GDP, debt is the highest it has been since March 1963, almost 60 years ago.

The deficit for the month was in line with the revised forecast for 2021/22, published by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) alongside last October’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, although higher than forecast interest charges on index-linked debt offset the benefit of higher than forecast tax revenues.

Cumulative receipts in the first three quarters of the 2021/22 financial year amounted to £641.4bn, £82.8bn or 15% higher than a year previously, but only £44.2bn or 7% above the level seen in the first three quarters of 2019/20. At the same time, cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £700.5bn was £52.4bn or 7% lower than the first nine months of 2020/21, but £113.4bn or 19% higher than the same period two years ago.

Interest amounted to £53bn in the nine months to December 2021, £20.5bn or 63% higher than the same period in 2020/21, principally because of the effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts. Interest costs were £10.6bn or 25% more than in the equivalent nine months ended 31 December 2019.

Cumulative net public sector investment in the three quarters to December 2021 was £34.7bn. This was £14.6bn or 30% less than the £49.3bn reported for the first nine months of last year, which included around £17bn of COVID-19-related lending that the government does not expect to recover. Investment was £8.6bn or 33% more than two years ago, principally reflecting greater capital expenditures, including on HS2.

The increase in debt of £205.5bn since the start of the financial year comprises the deficit of £146.8bn and £58.7bn in other borrowing. The latter was used to fund lending to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses overseen by the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), student loans, and other cash requirements, net of the receipt of taxes deferred last year and loan repayments.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, external advisor on public finances to ICAEW, said: “Today’s numbers highlight the impact inflation is having on the public finances, with higher tax revenues collected in December offset by the rising cost of index-linked debt. We expect interest charges to increase further in the next few months as the time lag on index-linked debt catches up with the current 7.5% rate of RPI.

“With borrowing costs low and headroom in forecasts for the next financial year, the temptation will be to delay fixing the public finances in order to tackle the immediate hit to household budgets from anticipated energy prices hikes and higher prices in the shops, so pressure on the Chancellor to postpone or phase in April’s national insurance rise is likely to grow.”

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing the increase in net debt for the 9 months to Dec 2021 and public sector net debt and public sector net debt / GDP at 31 Dec 2021 together with variances versus prior year and two years ago.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the eight months to November 2021 from £136bn to £130bn and the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £321.9bn to £321.8bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit for each of the 9 months to Dec 2021.

Click on link below to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.